Inside SF - The San Francisco Scoop

Nob Hill: SF’s Posh Neighborhood

Mark Hopkins Bob Hill Mansion
Mansion on Nob Hill, built by Mark Hopkins

San Francisco is one of many cities around the world that claim to be built on seven hills (for some reason it’s always seven), going back all the way to ancient Athens and Rome. In our case the ‘The Seven Hills of San Francisco’ are Telegraph Hill, Nob Hill, Russian Hill, Rincon Hill, Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson and Lone Mountain or Mount Sutro. At the same time many people here will tell you that the city’s built on forty-nine hills, so you can take your pick.

One of the oldest and most illustrious of San Francisco’s neighborhoods sits on Nob Hill. Containing numerous high-end hotels, apartment buildings and a cathedral on its lofty peak, it looks down over the Financial District and the Bay Area from a height of no less than 376 feet. It’s also one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the whole world, in terms of per capita income (and real estate value), which isn’t that surprising when you consider how expensive the Bay Area generally is in every way.

However, the hill also has a fascinating story, which shines a light on early San Francisco and California history, rooted as it is in the Gold Rush.

Early Development

Originally called California Hill (after California Avenue, which runs right over it), at first its steep incline prevented much development, until the California Street Cable Railroad opened in 1878 (the third San Francisco cable car line and the oldest still operating) and house-building there became not only possible, but very desirable. This was really convenient for the owner of the railroad company, because he was none other than Leland Stanford, one of the richest men in San Francisco, and he wanted to build a mansion for himself at the top of the hill.

Stanford was one of the ‘Big Four’ (they referred to each other as ‘the Associates’ – which sounds even more sketchy), the other three being Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Collis Huntington. They were fabulously rich businessmen (often referred to as ‘robber barons’), who were hugely influential in San Francisco as the principal founding partners of the Central Pacific Railroad Company (CPRR). They had invested in CPRR as wealthy Sacramento merchants, in 1862, and when the Transcontinental Railroad reached San Francisco in 1869 their fortunes were secured.

All four of them ended up moving to San Francisco and they decided to build palaces for themselves atop what was to become Nob Hill, since it had the best views of the city, the Bay and the Pacific.

Of the partners Stanford is the best known today, since he founded Stanford University, in 1891, near his country home in Palo Alto. During the 1940’s and 50’s the University made a particular effort to foster entrepreneurialism amongst its students, which led to the development of Silicon Valley.

A New Era for Nob Hill

By 1900 all the associates were dead, but their enormous mansions now dominated the skyline above San Francisco, and they’d been joined by another multi-millionaire, James Flood, who’d built a huge brownstone in the middle of their community.

It’s lucky that the Big Four liked Flood, because when an immigrant German merchant called Nicolas Yung refused to sell his Nob Hill property to Crocker, who was constructing his house next door, the associate had a forty-foot wall built to surround Yung’s residence, in order to ruin his views. Called a ‘spite fence’, the issue was only resolved when Yung’s widow sold the house to Crocker’s descendants – right before the whole district was more or less razed by the Great Fire.

It was during this period that the neighborhood became known as Nob Hill. The name is a shortening of the Anglo-Indian term ‘Nabob”, which itself is a corruption of the Hindustani word ‘Nawab’, meaning a great sovereign ruler, such as a king or emperor. The British used Nabob as a pejorative term, to mean someone from a humble background, who had suddenly acquired a large fortune in the East, usually by nefarious means, and was now wont to show-off their new-found wealth in a vulgar way (a little like ‘nouveau riche’).

The Big Four with their new-found immense wealth were definitely seen as such and as time passed the name was shortened to ‘Nob’. Today it’s often referred to as ‘Snob Hill’ by San Franciscans, which is ironic because it’s considered to be an ‘old money’ type neighborhood now.

Transformation of the Neighborhood

As the twentieth century dawned the area was starting to change again. Yet another Nob, James Fair, had built a mansion there and, following his death in 1894, his daughters were planning on building a huge hotel on the site in his memory.

Fair had made his fortune, like Flood, from the famous ‘Comstock Lode’ silver mine, the largest such discovery ever in the United States. In twenty years the mine produced over a hundred million dollars and Fair and Flood, both from poor Irish-immigrant backgrounds, became known as ‘the Silver Kings’.

In 1890, when his eldest daughter was getting married in San Francisco, with the grandest wedding the city had ever seen, Fair was forced to sit in his hotel suite, uninvited to the matrimonial festivities. Even though, in a break from his usual miserliness, he had given a million dollars to ‘Tessie’ as a wedding present. Apparently, it was not enough!

His daughters were clearly a chip off the old block, because they saw a great opportunity and decided to build what was to become the Fairmont Hotel, the first such establishment on top of Nob Hill, where their father’s old mansion stood. Nevertheless just a week before the hotel opened, in 1906, they sold their entire interest in the Fairmont.

Several days later the Great Fire swept through San Francisco and nearly all the buildings on Nob Hill were destroyed, apart from the Flood Mansion and the Fairmont Hotel, although both were badly damaged. It looked like Fair’s daughters had sold up just in time!

In the end Julia Morgan, a pioneering female architect in California, was hired to supervise repairs and the Fairmont was able to open the following year. From the ashes of the other mansions more hotels arose – The Mark Hopkins Hotel, the Huntington Hotel and the Stanford Court – and on the site of the Crocker Mansion Grace Cathedral was eventually constructed.

Flood’s mansion has since become the home of the Pacific-Union Club, considered one of the most elite private members clubs on the west-coast. The Big Four were gone, but the rich remained!

Nob Hill Today

In spite of being an upscale neighborhood, Nob Hill is full of hidden corners and unexpected charms. Chinese shops, restaurants and temples spill over from Chinatown to the east, there are upscale boutiques closer to Union Square and funky independent stores and dive bars abound in the borderlands with the Tenderloin (known locally – and this is one of my favorites – as ‘the Tender Nob’).

The neighborhood is home to some significant attractions: the Cable Car Museum (which is a must when visiting San Francisco), Huntington Park (which has a nice playground and a beautiful fountain) and Grace Cathedral, one of the major houses of worship in San Francisco and also host to classical concerts from time to time.

The nightlife on Nob Hill is worth experiencing too. Of particular note is the restaurant and bar, Top of the Mark, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. It has some of the best views of the city from its eyrie on the top floor. Right on the other side of the street is the impressive Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, a restaurant and bar in the Fairmont Hotel, which is dressed up with a Tiki theme and features live music.

Nob Hill is also a good jumping off point to explore other nearby SF neighborhoods. From the Cable Car Museum you can take the cable car down to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf (the end of the line), or down to Union Square, in the other direction.

The San Francisco cable car system is operated from Nob Hill

Both our SF in a Day and Half Day SF City Highlights tours start with a cable car journey up California Street to the very top of Nob Hill, where we give guests a tour of the area, including visiting a secret garden with great views of the neighborhood and city.

If you have any feedback on Nob Hill: SF’s Posh Neighborhood please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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